“I think that, somehow, we overprotect children,” says A Monster Calls director J A Bayona. “This is a story that was written for kids and helps them deal with complicated emotions.”
Adapted from a book by Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls tells the story of a boy (Lewis MacDougall) trying to cope with the news his mother (Felicity Jones) has cancer. To make matters worse, he has to spend time with his dreaded grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). To cope, he conjures up a treelike storytelling monster (voiced by Liam Neeson).
“I think that we don’t talk to kids about things we think are going to be uncomfortable,” says the Spanish director. “The mother does the same in the story – she’s trying to protect her child by not telling the truth, but she is provoking a bigger pain by not doing so.”
Bayona has a track record for telling grown-up stories about children. His superb The Orphanage (2007) was a horror film set in 1975, at the end of the Franco regime, and The Impossible (2012) told the story of the deadly 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as seen through the eyes of a lost child.
“The three films I have done so far deal with childhood and growing up,” says Bayona. “I belong to the first generation growing up in a democracy in Spain [after Franco] and we were super over-protected.”
“The thing that landed with me was that it was so unique having elements of fantasy and animation that were also rooted in this quite serious story,” says actress Jones (who can currently also be seen in the blockbuster Star Wars spin-off Rogue One). “I met Bayona in London and it was so obvious the passion that he was bringing to the project.”
“The first time I read the book, because it is an illustrated book, I was very impressed with Jim Kay’s [artwork],” says the 41-year-old director.
“So it became impossible to separate the story that Patrick wrote from Jim’s illustrations.”
As a result, the stories the tree monster tells are animated. This was also a way for Bayona to separate the realism of the boy’s story from the imagination of the youngster’s mind.
“I think the characters in the tales, they are not really characters in the story, they represent ideas,” Bayona says. “So the moment that you put a face, it feels too much. It feels distracting, I had this idea that the characters in the animation, they will not have a face.”
They do have a voice, however, the unmistakable gruff Irish tones of Taken star Neeson, a nod to the Celtic traditions of the Green Giant, from which the monster is derived.
“Lewis is brilliant as the boy and the relationship he has with Neeson as the monster is very special,” says Weaver. “I think it’s one of the most original movies I’ve been part of.”
Could there be any higher praise from the star of Alien?
The reputation of director Bayona is growing, and he has been given the task of making Jurassic World 2, or as he looks at it, Jurassic Park 5.
“I loved Jurassic Park growing up,” says Bayona.
The film will be the first time that Bayona has had a predominantly adult cast, with Chris Pratt reprising his role from the 2015 reboot.
“An adult can be a child too,” Bayona says. “Then you go with what are the fears facing him. I think that in front of death, we all feel like a helpless child.”
As to what we can expect, he adds: “Jurassic is going to be much more scary than the previous one, for example.”
• A Monster Calls is in cinemas from Thursday, January 12